It might come as a surprise to many that Josceline Dimbleby, a woman who over the past 30 years has become firmly established as one of the best-loved doyennes of the British culinary scene, has never taken a cookery class in her life, nor set out to pursue a career in this field.
Instead, Dimbleby trained as a singer at the Guildhall School of Music in London. When marriage to the British political commentator and Question Time host David Dimbleby and children put this on hold – "I felt very strongly that I wanted to bring my children up myself" – she started to channel her creativity in other ways. "I come from a family of musicians and artists; when I started cooking, I realised that this was another way I could use my imagination. I didn't want to follow other people's recipes, so I made up my own," she explains.
Sixteen cookery books later (with combined sales topping the two million mark) and having spent 15 years as a food writer for the Sunday Telegraph, Dimbleby's recipes are as relevant and popular as they ever were. An updated version of one of her best-known titles, Marvellous Meals with Mince, which was first published in 1982, is due to be re-released in September, complete with new recipes, photographs and updated ingredients.
Talking ahead of her appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she will be discussing her latest book, Orchards in the Oasis: Recipes, Travels and Memories, she says that her interest in food was first ignited when she was just seven years old and living in Syria. "Like many diplomatic families, we travelled a lot, but Damascus was a particularly formative place for me; it's where my first intense memories came from and where I first realised the magic of spices and the souqs. I remember being in the kitchen, watching our Armenian chef Joseph cooking – rubbing spices into legs of lamb and things like that – and being fascinated by it all."
Later on, when she started cooking for herself, Dimbleby says that her multicultural upbringing and the travelling she did before she had children proved hugely influential. "Nowadays, it doesn't seem so odd, but back in the mid-1970s, there was no fusion cooking at all, so doing things like adding Middle Eastern spices to a shepherd's pie was viewed as very idiosyncratic; people were amazed by it. For me, though, it was a case of having tasted all these wonderful, odd things and I wanted to recreate them at home."
While some of the ingredients she used in her recipes may have been unfamiliar to the British public, her tone and approach was certainly not and it is this accessibility that continues to resonate with readers. "I can't simply write a recipe. I have to include a few lines explaining the inspiration behind the dish or where I first made it and I think people quite like that," she says. "It's also benefited me that people know I'm not a professional television chef; they can identify with me that bit more."
Even after she decided to write a memoir about her life, it wasn't until she travelled back to Syria eight years ago that Dimbleby realised food would play such an integral role in what would later become Orchards in the Oasis. "I find it very difficult to separate food from life and so many of my memories revolve around it."
The results of her endeavours speak for themselves: the book has received huge amounts of praise for its enticing recipes and evocative tales and won the Guild of Food Writers Kate Whiteman Award for Work on Food and Travel 2011 last year.
Josceline Dimbleby will be discussing Orchards in the Oasis tomorrow at 3pm at the InterContinental hotel in Dubai Festival City. She will also be appearing in conversation with Ariana Bundy at a Literary Tea on Saturday from 4.30pm at Anise restaurant in the same hotel. Tickets for both events are still available. For more information, visit www.tickets.emirateslitfest.com/v-254-josceline-dimbleby.aspx